It’s been a rite of spring for well over a decade now: as the tennis tour shifts to dirt, Rafael Nadal blooms into a towering colossus, leaving everyone else to wilt in his shadow.
Eventually, this tradition will end (in fairness, it was on hold in 2015 and 2016). But that end is not coming this year. Rafael Nadal is poised to completely dominate on the clay again this year, and will almost certainly do so with ease so as he stays healthy.
Of course, in sports, anything can happen on any given day. But Nadal on clay makes that maxim seem purely hypothetical.
Last year, he hit double digits in his trophy haul at three tournaments: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and the French Open. He only lost one match, to Dominic Thiem in the Rome quarterfinals, and quickly and emphatically avenged that blip in the French Open semifinals weeks later.
That win in Paris was one of Nadal’s most emphatic of the year, and probably the best Grand Slam run any champion on the men’s side has had in years. His performance in the final which clinched “La Décima” was especially brutalizing; he made Stan Wawrinka, a powerful French Open champion in his own right, look completely helpless, trouncing him 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
Nadal added another Grand Slam title months later in New York, but that one did not impress nearly as much: he dropped the first set three times on a path which didn’t feature a single top-20 opponent. The clay season remained his high water mark for the year, and was probably the best anyone performed all of 2017.
A year later, Nadal seems ready to do it again. Early returns, on Spanish clay at a Davis Cup tie in Valencia, were very, very good. And just as importantly, challengers are unclear.
Roger Federer, who has unexpectedly tilted the lopsided rivalry between the two steeply in his direction over their last several meetings, is skipping the clay entirely. Novak Djokovic is likely to improve quickly after his adrift performances to start this season, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to manufacture the belief necessary.
Thiem and David Goffin, two players who probably would have racked up some significant clay laurels in a Nadal-less alternate universe, are both coming off injury layoffs, and it’s tough to imagine either playing daunting enough tennis to meaningfully scare Nadal, at least not without gaining some serious momentum first.
The only other man to win a big clay court tournament last year was Sascha Zverev, now ranked fourth. Zverev has shown some decent form this spring, reaching the final of Miami, and he’s played Nadal tough on hard courts in Melbourne and Indian Wells. But he put up only scant resistance against Nadal when the two faced off on clay in Davis Cup in Valencia a week later, falling 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
Though Zverev has packed a decent amount of muscle onto his lanky frame in the past few years, against Nadal in Valencia he still looked like a boy playing against a man. At Roland Garros, where stakes will be highest for Nadal on clay, Zverev seems especially unlikely to threaten him.
One of the aforementioned younger generation will be ready to win the French Open someday. But in an era of tennis defined by the failure of new names to make major breakthroughs, there’s no reason to think this year will be the year.
The person who can stop Nadal, as his fans know all too well, is Nadal himself. His stats on injury withdrawals in recent months are truly woeful, and a genuine cause for concern. He has now failed to complete eight straight tournaments he’s entered–Basel, Paris-Bercy, London World Tour Finals, Brisbane, Australian Open, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Miami–either withdrawing before his first match, between matches, or mid-match.
Clay, though, has a way of ailing what heals him, and the time off should prove a blessing in disguise. Though he’s long been averse to the notion of selective scheduling like what Federer is doing right now, Nadal will turn 32 during this year’s French Open, and involuntary time off could help just as much as an intentional break.
Nadal has nothing left to prove on clay, but plenty left to win. Even if he’s just running up the score at this point, there’s more left on the dial. As Nigel from Spinal Tap would be proud tell you, his greatness goes to 11.